Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Robert Butler

Going Green

Charles Darwin wrote about how species began; the IPCC now points to how it all might end

Robert Butler | Spring 2009

Not many books change the way we think about the world, but in November 1859 John Murray published one of them. When Charles Darwin argued in “On the Origin of Species” that all species are connected through one family tree, the tree of life, he may have been considering domestic pigeons and Galapagan tortoises, but the take-home facts were that Adam and Eve didn’t arrive fully formed in the Garden of Eden and that our closest relatives were chimpanzees. You could argue that “Origin of Species” was the most important publication of the 19th century.

The 21st century has already seen a publication which changes the way people think about the world. If “Origins” looked back to how species began, this one points forward to how they might end. It’s impossible to imagine America going green (as it now seems to be) without the authority of this publication. The bleak message it holds about our future clearly resonated with the father of two young daughters called Malia and Sasha. It has given America its first green president.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Third Assessment was published in 2001 in four volumes: “Mitigation” (700 pages), “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (1,000 pages), “The Scientific Basis” (944 pages) and the “Synthesis Report” (398 pages). Should you find the time, they are available online in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Russian.

Unlike “Origin of Species”, they contain no original research. The authors peer-reviewed all the available information. The IPCC is extremely cautious—everyone has to sign up to the statements, but the authors said they were between 90% and 99% certain (many were 99% certain) that global warming was happening and was attributable to human activity. The take-home fact was that if emissions continued to rise unchecked, the earth’s temperature might rise by 5.8?C. The last time the planet was even three degrees warmer, sea levels were five metres higher. Hundreds of millions of people live along coastlines.

The mass of evidence that was considered and the unprecedented number of scientists that had come together to agree on this (e-mail proved a big help) represented a scholarly achievement as remarkable as Darwin’s own researches. The IPCC reports had become "the output of a great engine of inter-disciplinary research,” writes the science historian Spencer R. Weart, “a social mechanism altogether novel in its scope, complexity and significance.”

The 2001 report followed the more circumspect 1990 and 1995 reports, and was followed in its turn by a Fourth Assessment in 2007, which underlined the gravity of the 2001 position. As the IPCC’s conclusions have sunk in, more and more aspects of our daily lives have become problematic: from cars and kettles, airplanes and patio heaters, to lightbulbs and Google searches. Carbon has become a currency.

The report has led us to rethink the parameters of cause and effect, and costs, and personal responsibilities, and the interdependence of countries, and the trade-off between our lives and future generations. A sure sign of its impact, as the news filters down from science journals to broadsheets to popular culture, is that it surfaced for 55 seconds on this year’s “Celebrity Big Brother”. The ideas have gone viral. They are now part of who we are.

The Third Assessment was followed in 2003 by the heatwave in Europe, and in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, and in 2006 by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the Stern Review, and in 2007 by the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment. That year, George Bush, no great reader of science books, announced in his state-of-the-union address that we should “confront the serious challenge of global climate change”.

There was a book published a couple of years ago by Pierre Bayard, a droll professor of literature at Paris university, called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”. I gather that the gist of the book (which I haven’t read) is that you don’t have to read a book to have an idea of what it is saying. Many people understand the basic ideas of evolution (a word that didn’t appear in “Origin of Species”) without ever reading it. There are many, some of whom may even have read it, who still don’t believe in it. A 2004 survey for the New York Times found that 55% of Americans rejected the theory of evolution.

Many people also reject the findings of the IPCC. Their broad position has shifted over the last decade—from “climate change isn’t happening”, to “climate change is happening but it isn’t caused by human activity”, to “climate change is happening and is caused by human activity but it would be pointless to do something about it”. These little shuffles resemble a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. You have to keep checking or you’ll miss the moment when someone changes their position. But this year has already seen a spectacular conversion which no one could miss.

For years the world’s largest oil company Exxon-Mobil assiduously supported the work of think-tanks that attacked the positions of the IPCC and was in turn attacked by the Royal Society for doing so. But in January Exxon called for a tax on carbon to fight global warming. It took the Vatican a lot longer to come to terms with Galileo. 

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.